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The Death of Greg Curnoe

David W. McFadden
From:   There'll Be Another. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1995.


What a painting that would make
THE DEATH OF GREG CURNOE
huge epic panorama
the size of an airport billboard
the size of a Dorval mural
larger than those billboards along the
Melacón in Havana Cuba saying
Sí por Cuba
(often translated as Sigh for Cuba)
or Esta Tierra Es 100% Cubano
(even Fidel admits that's a whopper)
large enough in other words to say
without embarrassment here is a death
worth considering worth paying attention to
here is a death to ponder deeply the drastic
end of a life to be inspired by forever

I knew Greg Curnoe
he was a friend of mine
he was my best friend but many
felt he was their best friend
everybody who knew Greg thinks of himself
as having been Greg's best friend
which is the way it should be
Greg was like that
he cared for me everyone knew that
when I was suicidal in seventy-nine
(and semi-suicidal in seventy-seven)
he went way out of his way to help me
and now he's gone
I must have had a premonition
because a month before he died
I spent an afternoon in his studio
embarrassing him by telling him
how much I loved him
how great a human being he was
how magnificent an artist he was
how much I valued our friendship

Who could ever have imagined a poem
or a painting with the title
THE DEATH OF GREG CURNOE
who could ever have imagined Greg dead
butterflies or belugas going extinct
but Greg dead never
Greg would outlive everybody he'd still
be cycling and painting
well into the twenty-first century
and then at a highly advanced age
with his work behind him
with all his best friends dead
even his grandchildren all grown up
his heart would quietly stop pumping as he
watched Bugs Bunny on TV and saying
Hey Sheila come and look at this
Geez Sheila this is really good

I would do the painting myself
it would be large of course
of heroic dimensions
I would paint it in the Jack Chambers style
like Chambers' view of the Macdonald-Cartier Freeway
Even though Greg Curnoe died in early November
I would paint it while listening to Holly Cole singing
I'll be seeing you in every lovely summer's day

You would see the thirteen cyclists
arranged in two ranks
entering stage left across the canvas
riding along a quiet peaceful Southern Ontario
tree-lined two-lane highway
a few yellow leaves on the trees
maple leaves of course because they're maple trees
and it's symbolic of Greg's love of his country

In the distance far off the side of the road
a barn floats in a lake of early November floodwater
it really isn't floating it's an optical illusion
all the cyclists are looking at it they are looking
off to the side as they ride over this little bridge

Then in the upper left hand corner where the road
crests a little hill
you see a pickup truck and the driver is also
looking off to the left at the magic floating barn
both to the left and the right of the road
the fields are flooded with water

The driver is transfixed he's been driving
all the way down from Barrie
it's ten in the morning
there is a chill in the air
the sky is full of death
Greg has been at the front of the left rank
it is his turn to go to the back
he is falling back
the cyclists at the front are bracing
for a steep hill coming up
the sky is full of death
a few angels have covered their eyes with their wings

The sky fades away into infinity
floating here and there in the sky dimly
are some of Greg Curnoe's most famous paintings

But if I painted the painting myself
it would be a terrible mess I can't even draw
we couldn't get Jack Chambers to do it because
although Jack Chambers was Greg Curnoe's best friend
Jack Chambers has been dead since 1978 and besides
what painter would paint a painting from someone else's mind

Maybe we could get John B. Boyle to paint it
because John B. Boyle was also Greg's best friend
he would be even better than Jack Chambers
because Chambers is dead Boyle is alive
he wouldn't mind painting a painting out of
somebody else's mind especially since
it's probably in his mind too it's in all our minds
although it might not have occurred to him yet
and he could paint it in the Chambers style or even
in his own style if he thought it more appropriate

I'm walking around El Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes
in Havana Cuba and wishing I could remember exactly
(while examining the extensive collection of Greek vases
the Titians the self-portrait of Joshua Reynolds
the paintings showing Negroes in foolish situations)
what Greg had to say about the painters of the Revolution
many look as if they had been more inspired by Greg Curnoe
than he by them or them by anything else and I'm trying to
remember what Greg had to say about the work of

Eduardo Abela (1889-1965)
Amelia Peláez del Casal (1896-1968)
Víctor Manuel García (1897-1969)
María Pepa Lamarque (1893-?)
Mirta Cirra Herrera (1904-1986)
Jorge Arche (1905-1956)
Mariano Rodríguez Alvarez (1912-1990)
René Portocarrero (1912-1985)
Gilberto de la Nuez Iglesias (1913-?)
Servando Cabrera Moreno (1923-1981)
Angel Acosta León (1930-1964)
Manuel Mendive Hoyo (1944-?)
Gustavo Acosta Pérez (1958-?)

In every little gallery of the museum
an elderly woman snoozes on a hard-back chair
and as I enter she gets up and keeps standing
sees my camera and without my asking
gives me carta blanca to take all the photos I want
of whatever painting I'd like to photograph

And as I leave each little gallery
and enter the next one
the woman in the previous one sits down
and resumes her little siesta
and the one in the new one wakes up
and stands up and starts telling me
I should feel free to take pictures
all the pictures I want whatever
and she doesn't even mind if I use a flash
though I wouldn't dream of it

I fall in love with the paintings of Jorge Arche
and take great pains to photograph them
because no reproductions are available
nobody knows anything about Jorge Arche
I wonder if Dulce María Loynaz the poet
who is ninety-two and lives where she always lived
in a beautiful house in the Miramar section of Havana
I wonder if she knew Jorge Arche
and maybe even was in love with him
he is so handsome in his Autorettrato (1935)
or his Mi Mujer y Yo (1939)
or his Primavero Descarso (1940)
and his paintings are so melancholy and simple
and Dulce María Loynaz is so beautiful in the
beautiful photo taken of her in 1947
her poems are so melancholy and simple
after all she knew everyone
Federico García Lorca (1898-1936)
Juan Ramón Jiménez (1881-1958)
Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957)
she must have known Jorge Arche
no info on how Jorge Arche met his end
but he was even younger than Greg when he died
and maybe Dulce María Loynaz
was as bereft at the Death of Jorge Arche
as we all were at the Death of Greg Curnoe

And so I plan to go to the Canadian Embassy
and ask them to arrange for me to meet
Dulce María Loynaz who is in her nineties
and has beautiful long hands according to the singer
Oderay Ortega Atán who went to her house and sang for her
along with other members of the Cuban National Choir
when Señora Loynaz won the Premio Cervantes in 1992
but I get sick and stay sick
until I have to return to Toronto

And I feel as if
all the paintings Greg ever did
all the magnificent installations
all the heartbreaking watercolour sketches
all the miraculous pen and ink drawings
all the brilliant rubber-stamp canvasses
all the funny things he made both when he
was a kid and when he was all grown up
all the little rubber-stamp notebooks he made
all the photos he took
all the bicycles painted on plexiglass
so they cast a shadow like real bicycles
all the portraits of his friends
and of Sheila
Owen
Galen
Zoë
the various family dogs cats birds
the views from his studio windows
all the paintings he wanted to paint
but never got around to it

All this huge collection of stuff
follows me around wherever I go
just outside my field of vision
I can feel it there
stretching out in all directions
away from me
I can't see any of it
but I can sense it being there like space
surrounding the planet on which we briefly live --

And then on the way home I remember that Greg
had been in Havana in November 1988
at the invitation of the Cuban government
with a group of poets and artists from London Ontario
including Christopher Dewdney who said Greg seemed
very awkward in the foreign environment of Cuba
(which wasn't surprising he even seemed a little awkward
on his visits to the foreign environment of Toronto)
Greg's wife Sheila was there too and she said Greg
filled two fat notebooks with strange observations
mostly about his feeling terribly awkward in Cuba
but somehow the notebooks got lost during the trip
Greg searched everywhere for them but they were gone

And one day in Cuba Greg recovered from his
awkwardness and took a bicycle
up into the hills overlooking
the beaches east of Havana
Santa Maria del Mar for instance
and did some lovely watercolour sketches
of graceful palm trees by the sea
and these watercolours go very nicely
with his little watercolour sketches painted
along the shores of Lake Huron and Lake Erie
as I'm sure he must have realized
as he stood there painting in the hills
overlooking the beaches east of Havana
being careful not to get sunburned
wearing sunblock and a floppy straw hat
maybe feeling a little homesick
on November 17 1988 four years
minus three days before his death



Note: During two days and two nights of convalescence in my fourth Havana hotel, from a touch of food poisoning contracted in my third, I wrote this poem along with numerous other poems full of the atmospherics of Havana as it was in the spring of 1994. Back in Canada, Sheila Curnoe and Christopher Dewdney, both of whom had accompanied Greg on his trip to Cuba, kindly shared their memories and read the manuscript. I hereby call upon the Canadian Minister of External Affairs to begin petitioning the Cuban government for the return of Greg's notebooks.


David W. McFadden's works copyright © to the author.


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